What Mistakes Commonly Cause Semi-Truck Accidents?

semi-truck cab

It can take several months for a truck driver to complete the required classes in order to receive a Class-A Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) in Washington State. In that time, drivers receive hands-on instruction and training about the many technical maneuvers that are required to safely operate a semi-truck or other type of large commercial vehicle. A qualified and experienced trucker knows that patience and caution are the two most important qualities of a safe driver, and all drivers must prioritize these two qualities when it comes to turning and performing other maneuvers behind the wheel of a semi-truck so that other drivers are not forced to stop or make other last-second decisions to avoid a crash.

When an injury victim calls my office about a potential semi-truck accident case, I immediately begin investigating to see if any common mistakes might have caused the accident. While the list of potential mistakes made by any driver is never-ending, below is a list of just some of the most common mistakes made by truck drivers that we see in semi-truck accident cases.

Improper Left-Hand Turns

In almost all situations involving any type of motor vehicle, a driver who wishes to make a left-hand turn must do so in front of oncoming traffic. For a passenger vehicle, the process of beginning a left-hand turn and passing through the intersection may typically take only a second or two. For a semi-truck, a left-hand turn typically means the truck will block oncoming traffic for a much longer period of time. An oncoming vehicle may not have adequate time to react to a semi-truck’s sudden left-hand turn, or may have limited options for avoiding a collision due to the size of the semi-truck.

A vehicle that collides with the side of the cab or trailer of a semi-truck is at risk of “underriding” the truck. This means that a vehicle can become wedged between the bottom of the trailer and the ground. As you can see from the example below, a driver in a vehicle which underrides a semi-truck’s trailer can suffer serious and potentially life-threatening injuries due to the sharp edge of the trailer ripping through the vehicle. In extreme cases, underriding can even result in decapitation. 

Today, most semi-trucks are legally required to have underride guards – designed to greatly reduce the damage done by these types of crashes – built into the rear end of the semi-truck. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) even petitioned the NHTSA in 2011 to enforce stricter standards for these guards. Research data from the IIHS shows that these guards are inadequate for preventing fatalities in crashes that occur at the outer edge of the trailer.

Improper Right-Hand Turns

For passenger vehicles, making a right-hand turn seems like one of the easiest maneuvers a driver will have to make. For semi-trucks, it’s an entirely different story. Because semi-trucks are so much longer than even the largest of passenger vehicles, truck drivers must actually begin the process of making a right-hand turn by veering out wide to the left and then swinging the truck back around to the right. This allows a driver to create a larger turning radius for the semi-truck and helps prevent the truck from crossing the median into oncoming traffic once it passes through the intersection.

As you may have seen before, many semi-trucks are equipped with warning signs that read something along the lines of, “CAUTION: THIS TRUCK MAKES WIDE TURNS.” And while clear signage can be helpful in warning other drivers, it’s a common misconception that these signs serve as a catch-all warning that therefore places responsibility on passenger cars to yield to the semi-truck at all costs. Even if a semi-truck is completely covered in a variety of warning signs, the truck driver still bears the responsibility to ensure that it is safe to begin making a turn and that they are not jeopardizing the safety of other drivers by doing so.

Blocking an Intersection

If a semi-truck is blocking the roadway – while trying to make a wide turn or back into an alley, for example – the driver of a passenger vehicle may not have an adequate amount of time to stop and avoid a collision. This is another example of a scenario that may lead to underriding, which can cause serious injury or even death to the driver of a passenger vehicle.

If an accident occurs because a semi-truck driver is blocking an intersection and it is determined through physical evidence and official inspections that the truck was not properly visible – either due to dirty or damaged reflectors or lights, or a lack of reflectors or lights altogether – it can be easier to hold the semi-truck driver and/or owner/operator accountable for causing the collision. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) maintains strict requirements on the number of headlamps, reflectors, and other safety accessories that various sizes of semi-trucks must be equipped with in order to ensure their visibility to other drivers. Violation of these rules could not only result in criminal penalties and fines, but could also place liability on the truck driver and owner/operator in the event of a crash.

Rear-End Collisions

Common sense tells us that larger and heavier vehicles will take longer to come to a complete stop than your standard and smaller passenger vehicles. Commercial vehicles are no exception to this rule, and the sheer size of the average semi-truck makes a rear-end collision much more likely to result in serious injuries or even death to a driver of a passenger vehicle. Rear-end collisions involving semi-trucks are often caused by driver fatigue, driver impairment, or distracted driving. Malfunctioning brakes, poorly-maintained wheels and tires, speeding, and oversized or improperly-secured cargo are other common factors found in rear-end collisions involving a semi-truck. Cargo that is too large or improperly secured can throw off the semi-truck’s weight balance and center of gravity, which makes the truck harder to stop and generally more difficult to control.

Conversely, liability for a collision that involves a passenger car crashing into the rear of a semi-truck can also be placed on the semi-truck driver. This is another scenario that can lead to underriding, as the rear of a cargo trailer is typically higher than the front bumper of a passenger vehicle. The mechanics of this situation can cause a passenger vehicle to be wedged between the trailer and the ground, and the trailer can even tear the top off of a passenger vehicle if underriding occurs. A slow-moving truck driver who tries to merge into fast-paced traffic or fails to make the truck visible to other drivers may be held responsible for a crash if the truck is rear-ended by another vehicle.

Stopped Trucks: Improper Use of Markings and Warnings

In the event that a truck experiences a mechanical problem or has to suddenly pull over to the side of a roadway or highway for any reason, there are several precautionary steps that need to be taken in order to ensure the truck is visible to other drivers. The FMCSA requires semi-truck drivers to first turn on the truck’s emergency hazard lights, just like the hazard lights you and I have on our passenger vehicles. The FMCSA requires the truck’s emergency hazard lights to be activated while the driver sets up a series of three (3) physical warning signals that are spaced apart to adequately warn approaching drivers of the truck’s location.

The FMCSA states that semi-truck drivers may either use triangle-shaped reflectors – which are usually a dark red color and made of hard plastic – or roadside flares that produce a flame. For drivers who use flame-producing flares, the FMCSA also has strict requirements on the placement of those flares in the event that a semi-truck is leaking flammable or otherwise hazardous materials. Failure to follow these rules could lead to an explosion on a busy highway, exposing a large number of people to potential injury or death.

‘Backing’ Accidents

Driving a semi-truck in reverse – commonly referred to as “backing” among the truck driving community – is one of the most difficult and dangerous maneuvers for a driver to make, mainly due to truck drivers’ limited visibility of their surroundings. According to one study commissioned by the NHTSA, there are an estimated 30,000 injuries resulting from backing accidents involving semi-trucks each year in the United States. Of those, 3,000 are estimated to be considered serious or incapacitating injuries, and 171 are estimated to be fatal.

Even smaller semi-trucks are massive vehicles relative to regular passenger cars, and they don’t need to be traveling at highway speeds to inflict serious damage to other vehicles and the people inside of them. Many trucking companies advocate for their drivers to follow the G.O.A.L. philosophy, an acronym that stands for Get Out And Look. Truck drivers who fail to ensure that their surroundings are clear put nearby drivers, pedestrians, and bicyclists at risk of being seriously injured or killed, for which the truck driver could presumably be held responsible.

Dangerous and Sudden Maneuvers

In cases where a semi-truck accident has been caused by a truck driver who swerved suddenly or recklessly changed lanes without checking the truck’s blind spot, it is not uncommon to find a history or pattern of similar behavior in that truck driver’s driving record – previous traffic citations or employer disciplinary history, for example. These factors can help support an injured victim’s claim that the trucking company was negligent in hiring, training, and/or retaining the truck driver. The trucker’s driving history records may also shed light on a history of driver fatigue or Hours of Service violations, which can also help bolster an injured victim’s claim for damages.

Unsecured Cargo or Improper Storage

Failure to properly secure or store cargo on a semi-truck can throw off the entire truck’s center of gravity, causing it to be unbalanced and much more difficult to control or stop in a safe manner. This also frequently causes large commercial trucks to jackknife. In the event of a semi-truck accident, we often see truck drivers claim that the shifting of the cargo load they were carrying caused them to lose control of the vehicle, leading to the collision. While the driver’s claim may be true, it does not excuse the driver and/or trucking company from bearing at least some responsibility for the injured victim’s damages. As is true in all cases, preservation of evidence such as photographs and video is critical in supporting claims under these circumstances.